Reaction and Reason
As an internationalist the referendum has left me heartbroken.
I think of the opportunities lost now to a generation, to my kids. I think of the hardworking immigrants who have given so much to us who awoke feeling dispossessed of their home. I worry as much, if not more, about what our rejection of Europe means for less stable, less tolerant countries on our continent who will now be consumed by the same insanity. It is not just the UK, but the whole of Europe that has been left smaller and more dangerous by this vote.
As a student of the 1930s I always look for comparisons, warnings from that period and, for the first time in my life, don’t tell myself I’m being silly. I look as reason, guaranteed in the past by respectful debate and discussion, is swept aside by emotional reaction. I watch as populists who know better try to harness anger but find themselves unleashing hate.
I can’t begin to understand why, here and around the world, a creeping nihilism has taken control. How people have lost all hope in the politics that we know have seen huge leaps in progress over the last century.
Trust in leaders has been fatally undermined by the scale of inequality and the injustice of the poor paying the price of a financial crisis created by the rich. The cynicism infects, to the extent that we watched as Gove, who had prided himself on his intellect, found himself attacking experts for their expertise. It was as if Trump had gone to Robert Gordon’s College.
I feel blessed that there has never been anyone in politics who I felt I hated. I hated intolerance, ideologies, injustice, but never individuals. I’ve seen so many people poisoned by the ungentle life and unfair rewards of politics. After 20 years working in the party and in government, I know there are those who won’t speak kindly about me, but I’ve never really felt there’s anyone who I’d describe as a hated enemy.
Then I see Nigel Farage gloating. I watch him shamefully claim that the referendum too place “without a single bullet being fired” and I feel nothing good.
I felt that before the referendum defeat, before the political murder of a friend. The ‘breaking point’ for me was that poster, and the desperate refugee boy, with exhausted eyes, peering over Farage’s shoulder.
But I know the anger and disgust I feel today is a reaction, not reason. Reaction risks repeating the same self-defeating decision that millions of our fellow citizens made when they voted to leave a union that is essential to their economic interests.
I’m determined not to let go of reason. I wanted to be part of both the European Union and the UK Union. I still do even now when I can’t have what I want. I want to reach beyond those unions, building coalitions and institutions that will bring all humankind together. I’ll never accept that’s a naïve hippy hope. I’ll never accept that I should care about someone more because they live on one side of an imagined line on the landscape. I’ll never be a Scottish nationalist. Nor will I ever be a British nationalist. I don’t associate with British institutions because they are British. I don’t see the world as flags and tribes.
I want to fight Farage not flee him.
Nicola Sturgeon is right, and deserves our support, as she joins with Sadiq Khan and others to ensure that we salvage as much that is good about Europe as we can from this terrible result. Given Scots voted in two referendums to stay in both unions, that must be the priority. Talk of an immediate referendum, the third in 2 years, will only add to the turmoil. Leaving the EU is a calamity. We may face years of upheaval. We know there will be wreckage when the smoke clears, but it may be months, years even, before we can see clearly and make reasoned judgements about the safe path out of this.
Here’s what I know. The European Union accounts for £11.6 billion of trade. The UK Union accounts for £48.5 billion. Four times as much trade. The European Union has offered opportunities to 135 thousand Scots who live and work in other nations of the union. The United Kingdom Union has offered opportunities to live and work to more than half a million Scots. Four times as many people benefiting.
However angry we may feel, one act of blind economic vandalism in the name of nationalism cannot excuse another.
At the very least surely we need to know what the two deals are that are on offer? What terms of separation will the UK secure with the EU? What will the new relationship look like? How much access to EU markets would we lose? What terms, if any would Scotland get from the EU? It’s easy to imagine Spain blocking Scotland for their own internal reasons. Will we, as has been mooted by Nicola Sturgeon in the last few days, adopt the Euro, a different currency from our main trading partner? What would replace the fiscal transfer of Barnett, so important to funding our public services?
Anyone rushing for another referendum before answers to these questions become clearer has a suspicious interest in not answering them. Article 50 negotiations will take time. We don’t need to rush to react. We have time to think about this.
Of course this isn’t just about a balance sheet of risk and reward.
I’m so proud of what I did to help lead the campaign that resulted in Scotland voting remain in 2014. For practical reasons because, as we now know, it meant avoiding a fiscal crisis and a currency crisis. I’m also proud that we stood on principle, because it was a moment when Scotland chose solidarity over nationalism. Reason won then even if it did not on Thursday.
However disheartening it is for internationalists to now face nationalist governments in both Holyrood and Westminster, however angry we may be at the decision some parts of England and Wales made on Thursday, the answer to division isn’t to rush into more division.
The forces of reaction have taken us out of the EU. It is a tragedy. Only an approach guided by reason, however difficult that is to summon today, will make sure the damage is not compounded here in Scotland.
I recently decided it was time to take a break from working in Labour politics. We all need to pause and take time to think.